Stories trump statistics
I’m a speaking coach. In this season of presidential debates, people often ask me which candidate is doing a better job presenting his case to the American people.
My answer: neither.
I find myself exhausted by the recitation of statistics: millions out of work, billions in taxes, trillion dollar deficits – the numbers are too large to comprehend. I feel overwhelmed. It turns out I’m not alone. In studying the response of people to the genocide in Darfur, Paul Slovic said,
“Most people are caring and will exert great effort to reserve "the one" whose needy plight comes to their attention. But these same people often become numbly indifferent to the plight of "the one" who is one of many in a much greater problem.”
To read Slovic’s article, click here.
What can be done to overcome this numbness? How can candidates provide the electorate what we need to understand the reality behind the numbers?
Tell the stories of individuals. Gov. Romney did this in the first debate when he said: “Ann yesterday was at a rally in Denver and a woman came up to her with a baby in her arms and said, ‘Ann, my husband has had four jobs in three years, part-time jobs. He's lost his most recent job and we've now just lost our home. Can you help us?’"
President Obama’s best moment was when he told the story of signing the Lily Ledbetter Act. He explained, “And it was named after this amazing woman who had been doing the same job as a man for years, found out that she was getting paid less, and the Supreme Court said that she couldn't bring suit because she should have found out about it earlier, when she had no way of finding out about it... This is not just a women's issue. This is a family issue. This is a middle-class issue. And that's why we've got to fight for it.”
Use understandable numbers. The number one million (1,000,000) is too big to understand. In the second debate, Romney said, “What you're seeing in this country is 23 million people struggling to find a job.” When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was speaking to the American people in his second inaugural address he said, “I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.” One in three is easy to understand.
According to the Oct. 5, 2012 Bureau of Labor Statistics news release, the national unemployment rate is 7.8 percent (12.1 million people). A further 8.6 million people are employed part time for economic reasons and an additional 2.5 million are categorized as marginally attached to the labor force, including 802,000 discouraged workers. Discouraged workers “are those not currently looking for work because they believe no jobs are available for them.” The total population of unemployed and underemployed is thus 23.2 million, or 14.9 percent. If I were on Romney’s staff, I’d advise him to quit using the word “million” and talk about unemployment this way. “Think about your neighbors and friends. One American in seven is either unemployed, underemployed or too discouraged to look for work.”
- Paint a picture. Policies and strategies are essential to governing, but sometimes difficult to describe. In their most effective moments, speakers use vivid language to paint a picture in the minds of listeners. In response to moderator Candy Crowley’s question about the attack on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Obama said, “I was there greeting the caskets coming into Andrews Air Force Base and grieving with the families.” Here, Obama painted a sympathetic and very presidential image.
The better debater is not necessarily the better president. Governing isn’t about improving one life, or making statistics understandable, or using vivid language. Governing is about protecting and defending the Constitution and serving the American people.
As you make your decision about the presidential race, I encourage you to do your homework. Don’t just listen to the same talking heads you always do. Look at the record of each candidate. Read two or three newspaper endorsements for both Obama and Romney. Consider the implications of their policies, and vote for the person you believe will do what’s best for our country over the long-term.